Thursday, October 27, 2016

Fish Adapt to Climate Change by "Switching On" Genes

Recent studies from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence found that types of a flat, cartilaginous fish, called the Winter Skate have been changing their body structure to better survive in the warmer waters. Yet it has been found that these fish weren't evolving, they were turning their genes on and off. These fish were adapting over a relatively short period of time, but not by changing their DNA sequence, but by changing how they express their genes. This form of adaptation is called Epigenetic changes, in which changes in gene expression do not rely on slow changes in DNA, as usually seen in evolution. Instead the process includes switching on and off parts of the DNA that have specific functions, these can also be turned up or down so their function becomes stronger or weaker. This process can take place in a matter of days and species with long lifespans and low reproductive rates are better equipped to undergo these types of changes. The researchers from this study hope this new finding can help protect endangered species like the Winter Skate and have implications in the conservation field.

Protein found in hookworm ‘soup’ could fight asthma, other autoimmune diseases

A lab led by molecular parasitologist, Alex Loukas, has been analyzing hookworms and have found that they may be able to aid in the reduction of auto-inflammatory responses in diseases like asthma, Crohn's and celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis.  Hookworms have been around for a very long time, and when they get into a host they can cause nausea, anemia, cramping, fever, and a number of other symptoms. In the past century, humans have effectively reduced the abundance of hookworms in our offspring and have greatly reduced the abundance of hookworms in humans, and consequently the number of people that have these auto-immune diseases has also greatly increased. The scientific team studying these organisms has discovered that they may also have some traits that can combat these harmful diseases in humans.
Close up photo of a hookworm
The key isn't really in the hookworms, but the liquid that these worms secrete.  There is a protein in the fluid called AIP-2, which when injected into mice, alleviates their auto-immune responses.  In the experiment, the treated animals' diseases were almost completely reversed, and they also found that it shifted the balance of immune cells like T cells and dendritic cells.  This can be helpful in battling harmful immune reactions in the lungs.  Though the research is far away from any human testing, this may be a great discovery for treating diseases that cause a lot of ailment to humans.  This experiment also shows that our relationship to parasites should be altered. Parasites are only known to be harmful to us, but if we open our minds, we can discover completely new helpful relationships with these organisms in order to improve our quality of life.  In fact, the role could be completely reversed in which we harm those organisms for our own gain in health benefits.

Tasmanian Devils’ Comeback against Cancer through Genetic Variation

                Since 1996 Tasmanian Devils have been showing a steep population decline due to cancer. The cancer causes infectious tumors to form on the devils faces and mouths. These tumors then cause the cancer to spread to other members of the population by contact through biting. Not only is the disease extremely infectious, spreading to all the known Tasmanian Devil populations in Tasmania, it is also very deadly. The tumors would cause so much disfigurement in their faces that they become unable to eat and eventually die of starvation. Over the course of 26 years 80% of the original population has declined sending the Tasmania on a sure path to extinction.

               However, it has recently been discovered that this may not be the case. Studies show that there are signs of genetic variation present in Tasmanian Devils making them resistant to the cancer. They collected the genomes of over 296 individuals from 26 years ago and compared them to the genomes collected from current populations and discovered that they are differences between the two in several different genes. It was then discovered that two of the genes exhibiting change are related to immune function or cancer risk. This supports the idea that Tasmanian devils are evolving in a way that increases resistance against this cancer, and because this change is occurring so rapidly, within 6 generations, it points to the variation being a trait already present in individuals that is just now becoming more common as it provides benefits against a recent outside stimuli.

                This is a very exciting turn of events, as it seemed that there was little hope for these iconic mammals. Being able to see genetic variation at work in such a short amount of time is a pretty rare thing, and I look forward to hearing more about the Tasmanian devils in the future.

‘Habit’ Uses Your DNA to Act as Your Personal Nutritionist

A new company open now to beta testing is boasting that it can help achieve your diet goals by going far beyond any other diet trend. Because every person is different, these generalized plans don’t affect everyone the same, and if one person metabolizes one food better or more efficiently than another, two people eating the same health food will see different effects. Instead of taking a generalized approach at helping their clients, Habit asks for a DNA sample and formulates a nutrition plan based solely on each individual client. But it gets better (and weirder) they will also pair you with a Habit nutrition coach and they deliver meals cooked according to your personal genomic blueprint and health goals.
So how do they make this blueprint? Well, DNA codes for every process your body undergoes metabolism is no different and the company lab checks for over 60 individual biomarkers that together describe how the individual will ‘react’ or metabolize food. They also require the client to take a liquid meal supplement once in the beginning of the service to check “phenotypic flexibility” which just gives a working understanding of your metabolism in action (think of it like a control in an experiment). From this information, they make a blueprint of an optimal balanced diet for the individual.

It’s not all about losing weight either--the clients express their goal and the coaches and personalized food help them reach that goal. So whether it’s lose some weight, training for a sport, healthily putting on weight, Habit claims to be the best help to you. The company has a very interesting goal and procedure and personally I’m excited to hear more about the results of their beta testing.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tapping genetics for better beer

A Belgian lab is trying to make brew better beer with new strains of yeast. The four ingredients that usually influence the flavor of beer are grains, water, hops, and yeast. Barley is usually used as the grain; it is moistened and allowed to germinate and then it is dried and roasted. Depending on how long the malt is roasted, it can make the beer taste like biscuits, coffee, or chocolate. The malted grains are then milled, cooked in water, and rinsed to produce a brother called wort. The amount of water used can change the acidity and therefore the taste of the beer. The wort is then boiled and hops are added; worts contribute to beer’s bitterness, but it also gets citrusy, fruity and floral notes from them. After the broth is cooled, yeast is added to produce alcohol and bubbles. Different yeasts can change the beer to make it crisp or sour.

            Carlsberg brewery in Denmark established one of the world’s first yeast-biology labs in 1875. Here, Emil Christian Hansen isolated the first pure culture of brewing yeast in 1883. Dr. Kevin Verstrepen wanted to change the way yeast is used in beer so he began researching. He tried at a few places before he went to Harvard, where he focused on the roles of repetitive DNA sequences in generating diversity. He left in order to work on research with wine and beer. He had 30,000 types of yeast including 1,000 strains used by brewers and another 1,000 isolated from fruit, flowers, insects, and people because he knew that many of them had genes known to influence the taste and other traits that brewers like. Dr. Verstrepen and his team made new strains by mating different strains of yeast and screening their offspring; the whole idea behind this was that if the two known yeast mate, it will create a completely new strain that has unique traits. They have made many new strains and are using them to make beer, and a few craft breweries have asked to use the new strains of yeast, but the team is not ready to release the new strains yet.

New Science Behind The Flu

With each flu season that comes and goes there are new vaccines created. In addition to these new vaccines there are new findings that explore possible ways to enhance the benefits of the flu vaccine as well as determine factors that cause more harm than good for patients that receive the vaccine. For instance, research has shown that nasal flu spray has not combat the flu virus and as a result researchers have advised doctors to refrain from giving patients the option of the nasal spray which is popular among children. Children will need to still get the vaccine injected since it is recommended that anyone 6 months and older receive the shot by the end of October. One difference that may be the cause of the nasal spray being less effective than before is the actual viruses it is designed to target. In previous years the nasal spray was only designed to target three different viruses, but in recent years it can target four.

 Another issues that comes about when receiving the vaccine is whether or not it will actually be effective each flu season. If a patient receives a vaccine that is design to target a specific strain of the flu repeatedly year after year, the vaccine will become less effective because the antibodies that are produced due to vaccine will decline. However, if the vaccine targets a different virus each year the body will generate an abundance of antibodies ready to attack the virus. Although it is recommended that one receives a flu vaccination to combat the flu virus it should be enough for people to practice good hand washing and mouth covering. The vaccine only protects patients from the most common strain of the virus. The strains of the flu do not change over the course of a couple of years , however, if one does not receive the correct vaccine to protect themselves from a particular strain one year they would still be safe from the other strains ,but susceptible to that one other strain.

Coffee Consumption Related to Genes

Did you ever wonder why you drink more coffee than your friends? This might be because it is in your genetics. A new gene called PDSS2 was linked to this. Researchers asked about 1,200 people how much coffee they drank and then looked at their genes. This was done on people who lived in Italy and the Netherlands. The conclusion was that people who drank less coffee had a greater expression of the PDSS2 gene. According to Nicola Pirastu, leader of the experiment, "The hypothesis is that people with higher levels of this gene are metabolizing coffee slower, and that is why they drink less." Therefore, these people do not need to drink excess amounts of coffee in order to feel energetic. Knowing this information, researchers believe that this can help explain why people react differently when taking different drugs. However, there needs to be further research on this topic before anything is 'set in stone.'

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

All-female hybrid fish species that 'uses' males for better genetics

A naturally occurring hybrid fish species, Hexagramos octogrammus/H. grampus (Hoc/Hag), composed of all-female members, is thought to have developed a unique method of evolutionary survival by switching matings between two different male species of the same genus.  The (Hoc/Hag) hybrid females are thought to have a competitive advantage because 100% of their species is capable of producing offspring, thus allowing them to quickly replicate and outnumber other species that produce both male and female offspring.  Replication without variation is an evolutionary disadvantage though, and this can be detrimental to the long term survival of the all-female species due to also developing a decreased ability to genetically adapt to environmental pressures.

Researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan have compared the genes of three species: Hexagramos octogrammus/H. agrammus (Hoc/Hag), H. octogrammus/H. otakii (Hoc/Hot), as well as their maternal pure line, H. octogrammus (Hoc).  Their study, published in Ecology and Evolution, found that the hybrid females, (Hoc/Hag), mate with their choice of two hybrid male species: (Hoc/Hot) or (Hoc/Hag).  The result of either mating always produces 100% all-female hybrid offspring in which both maternal and paternal genes influence their development.  The subsequent generation only inherits the maternal genome though, and excludes the paternal genome from gamete formation when they're able to form their own eggs.  In addition, the all female offspring can only mate with (Hoc) males whose sperm activate their eggs to start development.  The resulting (Hoc) offspring undergo normal germ cell development in which genetic recombination can occur between maternal and paternal genomes, resulting in a more diversified genome for their male/female offspring.

“When a female descendant of one of these backcrossed Hocs mates with a Hag male, a new all-female Hoc/Hag hybrid lineage arises. This could be another factor that increases the diversity of Hoc/Hac hybrids, increasing their survivability,” says the paper’s lead author, Hiroyuki Munehara.
The researchers constructed a mtDNA genealogical tree that showed that the (Hot) and (Hag) species diverged from their common ancestor around 1.5 million years ago.  Furthermore, their analysis also revealed that (Hoc/Hot) hybrids originated from hybrid (Hoc/Hag) females switching choice of host; instead of breeding with (Hag) males, they bred with larger (Hot) males that would better protect their eggs.